- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

SEATTLE They spent all spring deflecting questions about their record-setting season and subsequent playoff collapse. They insisted it couldn't happen again their major league record-tying 116 victories last season and that their only goal in 2002 is to win the World Series, no matter how many wins it takes to get there.

"Of course we're not thinking we're going to win 116," second baseman Bret Boone said in March during the Seattle Mariners' spring training camp. "To think we're going to do that again would be very naive."

And Boone was right. The Mariners are not on pace to win 116 games again this year.

They're on pace to win 106.

Entering last night's late game against the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle had a 30-16 record, good enough for first place in the American League West and the second-best mark in baseball behind Boston's 31-13. The Mariners' .652 winning percentage projects to 106 wins by season's end, which would all but assure the franchise of its third straight postseason appearance.

And if you go back five days before they struggled through a four-game losing streak, the Mariners had a 29-12 record, .707 winning percentage and were on a 115-victory pace.)

So why aren't the Pacific Northwest's rabid baseball fans on cloud nine these days? Aren't the 2002 Mariners playing a lot like the 2001 Mariners?

"Last year at this time, we had six or seven guys headed to the All-Star Game," manager Lou Piniella said. "This year they're struggling."

The term "struggling" may be relative, but a quick scan of the Seattle lineup does reveal some established stars performing below their usual standards.

Boone, who enjoyed one of the finest seasons ever by a second baseman with 40 home runs and a .331 batting average, was hitting .256 with six homers before last night's game at Safeco Field.

First baseman John Olerud, a lifetime .299 hitter, was down to .273. Outfielder Mike Cameron, despite his record-tying four-homer game May 2, is batting .238 and was hitless in his last 16 at-bats.

Newcomers Jeff Cirillo (.247), Ben Davis (.194) and Desi Relaford (.233) have not panned out as the club had hoped. And four key players are out with injuries: designated hitter Edgar Martinez and pitchers Jeff Nelson, Paul Abbott and Norm Charlton.

Still, the Mariners are getting All-Star-caliber seasons out of a handful of players. Ichiro Suzuki may not be receiving the fanfare he did in his first season in the United States, but the right fielder was still second in the AL with a .354 average and 15 stolen bases.

Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who had 10 saves and had not allowed an earned run, led a dominating bullpen that is a combined 12-2 with a 3.20 ERA.

And Ruben Sierra, getting the bulk of the time as DH in place of Martinez, has resurrected his career by hitting .329 with 29 RBI.

And for all their worrying, Seattle fans are still rooting for a first-place ballclub, one that entered play last night two games ahead of the upstart Anaheim Angels.

"We haven't been playing as well as we can, but we're in first place," Boone said. "Things could be worse. Last time I looked, we're not in fourth place, eight, 10 games out."

If the Mariners do hold off the Angels, Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, they will secure their fourth AL West title in eight years. But then what?

For all their regular-season success, the Mariners have yet to reach the World Series, losing to the mighty New York Yankees in the last two AL Championship Series. Who's to say they won't fall to the Yankees, or the Red Sox or whoever else may rise to the top of the league?

"I think you'll see a much hungrier team if we can get to the postseason," Abbott said. "You'll see guys more locked in and really focused to take it to the next level."

More focused than you were when you won 116 games?

"Absolutely," he said. "We'll take 95 wins this year and a World Series title."

In the end, 95 wins may do it. But right now the Mariners are holding themselves to a higher standard. Based on the way Piniella spoke Thursday after his team snapped its four-game losing streak, you'd have thought the Mariners had just broken out of a horrific slump.

"It was good to break the losing streak," Piniella said. "Now hopefully we'll get hot and start winning at the rate we're accustomed to."

Because in Seattle, 106 wins just aren't enough.

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